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This article by Nicole Plett was prepared for the November 7, 2001

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Human Rights in Jeopardy

Justice Not Revenge" is the first headline carried

on Amnesty International’s website linked to a section devoted to

the September 11 terrorist attacks against thousands of American


Yet Amnesty’s site carries a portrait photograph of Mexican human

rights lawyer Digna Ochoa y Placido, murdered on October 19. Ochoa

was shot at close range in her office in downtown Mexico City. A note

left behind warned that other lawyers that they would be next.

Such cruel events, large and small, are nothing new to William F.

Schulz, executive director of Amnesty International USA. Schulz has

recently published "In Our Own Best Interest: How Defending Human

Rights Benefits Us All" (Beacon Press; $25). He gives a talk at

Princeton University’s Frist Student Center Theater on Monday,


12, at 7 p.m.

Schulz’s appearance is co-sponsored by the Princeton U-Store and


International Group 67 of Mercer County, an active area group, now

in its 27th year, that meets monthly, led by group coordinator Sophia

Bounds. The group also hosts actor Danny Glover, who speaks in support

of Amnesty’s campaign against the death penalty, on Thursday, November

15, at 8 p.m.

Schulz’s "In Our Own Best Interest," published in April,


eight thematic essays that bring us face to face with people and


around the globe that we customarily prefer to ignore. Chilling at

any time, it is particularly so in light of the terror and strife

we have experienced since September 11. Amnesty’s strategy has always

been to put human faces on human rights crimes, and Schulz opens his

preface with one of many intimate stories he has to tell, this one

set in Pakistan, in cities with which many Americans have suddenly

become acquainted — Peshawar and Lahore.

Schulz tells of the plight of Samia Sarwar, a young woman from


Pakistan, who, married at 16, attempted to flee her violent marriage.

Denied by her family to divorce, an action believed to bring disgrace,

Sarwar fled to women’s shelter established in Lahore by women’s rights

lawyer Hina Jilani. There she was murdered by members of her own


Individual struggles and the adversities of thousands of others like

them have a profound impact on Americans, Schulz argues. "When

their dreams die, our health and security die with them."

Amnesty International, a human rights organization with

over a million members worldwide, and chapters in over 140 countries

and territories, was founded in London, in 1961 by lawyer Peter


Members have campaigned for the release of people imprisoned for the

expression of opinions, protesting ethnic and religious persecution,

ending the use of torture, and abolishing the death penalty.

An ordained Unitarian Universalist minister, Schulz came to Amnesty

International in 1994 after serving for 15 years with the Unitarian

Universalist Association of Congregations, the last eight (1985-93)

as president of that association. There he became involved in social

justice causes and led humanitarian missions in Romania, India, the

Middle East, and Northern Ireland.

We asked Schulz whether the current crisis we find ourselves in is

related to questions of human rights. "Unfortunately there is

a very direct relationship between the thesis that I propound in this

book and the crisis in which we find our selves," replies Schulz.

"Although what I’m about to say is in no way an excuse for the

crimes against humanity that were committed, it is important to


why extremism has found such fertile ground in places like Saudi


Egypt, Kuwait, Jordan, the Palestinian Authority, Pakistan.

"The reality is that people on the streets in those countries

have seen enormous corruption among their governments. They see their

leaders enjoying wealth beyond their wildest imaginations, while they

experience profound poverty. When you couple those situations with

a lack of democratic change through non-violent means, in which people

can express their sense of corruption and poverty, no independent

press, no legal system, no viable opposition parties, when those who

express differences of opinion are subject to imprisonment, or


When, in short, you have no human rights, the people who are suffering

look to the only organized movement that appears to be speaking to

their needs and fears — and that has been religious extremism.

That is a very direct correlation between a violation of human rights

and the September 11 crisis."

The first codifying of human rights came in 1948 with the Universal

Declaration of Human Rights, a document whose evolution Schulz traces

to the codes of the Babylonian king Hammurabi, to the Roman concept

of citizens’ rights, the Magna Carta in England, and the Bill of


in America. Schulz maintains that concepts such as cultural,


or national difference have very little sway on the question of human


"Human rights values are not American values," he says.


rights values are not prescribed by the U.S. Constitution, they are

prescribed by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Every nation

that joins the United Nations implicitly agrees to abide by the


Declaration of Human Rights. And those rights are also considered

customary international law. These are universal values that transcend

any particular culture.

"It is not an excuse for any country to say, `It is our custom

here to accept bribes or it is our custom to deny a free press.’ Or

even `It is our custom to chop off the hands of thieves.’ Custom is

trumped by the Universal Declaration and its prohibition on cruel

and inhuman punishment. Many countries’ constitutions contain


of various rights which they, the governments themselves, are


So much has changed since Amnesty’s founding in 1961, and human rights

violations have taken new directions, both positive and negative.

"Since 1961 we’ve seen a difference in positive ways: When Amnesty

was founded, there were many prisoners of conscience — that is

someone, in our terms, who is imprisoned for his or her non-violent

political or religious beliefs or because they belong to a particular

tribe, or a journalist who has angered their government. There are

fewer prisoners of conscience now than there were then. Also, fewer

countries are practicing the death penalty today; in fact a majority

of governments do not allow it," he says.

"On the negative side, there is a higher percentage — almost

three-fourths — of countries that practice torture today than

did so in 1961. So while countries are holding fewer high-profile

prisoners of conscience, they are practicing torture." Torture

has become a target for Amnesty activists, a practice that is


to combat because it usually takes place in hiding.

"Torture now takes place most frequently against people


not for political reasons, but who belong to a certain ethnic group

or who are seen as some kind of threat to the government," says

Schulz. "These are not necessarily the high-profile people of

the ’60s and ’70s. They may even be common criminals convicted of

everyday crimes — that is, people forgotten by the system or


the general public thinks deserves their torture. In the ’60s and

’70s government prisoners were often seen as heroes, but this is no

longer the case."

America is by no means immune from Amnesty’s scrutiny and criticism.

Schulz says the U.S. houses more prisoners per capita than any country

in the world, with the possible exception of Russia, a total of some

2 million. It also has a larger percentage of women in prison than

ever before.

"Women make up 15 percent of U.S. prisoners today, a sharp


largely because of the drug laws," he says. "And women are

likely to be sexually mistreated while in prison. Amnesty


documented a report this year on the treatment of women in prisons

that found sexual mistreatment in 49 of the 50 states. Women in prison

are forced into prostitution rings, forced to trade sex for needed

medical services, sometimes even forced into sex with male


Born in 1949, Schulz grew up in Pittsburgh, an only

child. His father was a professor of law at University of Pittsburgh,

working mainly in criminal law. His mother was a homemaker. He grew

up as a third generation Unitarian Universalist, now married to the

Reverend Beth Graham, also a Unitarian Universalist minister. They

live on Long Island where his wife serves a congregation.

He says that, from an early age, his direction was not law but the

ministry. He became interested in the ministry in high school and,

as a student at Oberlin College, he pursued various student ministry

opportunities in Ohio.

"While I was at Oberlin, the Unitarian Universalist congregation

in Kent, Ohio, a small church of about 80 members, was in between

full-time ministers, and they hired me for a year to serve the


This was in 1970; the year state troopers shot and killed students

at Kent State University during an anti-war demonstration. Although

Schulz says his life’s path was well established during this shocking

time, it had a profound impact on him.

"My parents were both very politically conscious. My father was

active in the Civil Liberties Union — this was the era of civil

rights and the Vietnam War. So the Kent State events, while certainly

profoundly important, were one of a series of growthful events that

I had.

"Throughout high school I was involved in anti-war vigils and

demonstrations. Kent was very dramatic and personal. I was there and

students were killed. Certainly, in retrospect, it informed the kind

of work I do today, which is to try to set limits to governments’

ability to harm their own citizens."

Schulz graduated from Oberlin, earned an M.A. in philosophy from the

University of Chicago, and an M.A. in theology and a Doctor of


from the Meadville/Lombard Theological School of the University of

Chicago. An ordained Unitarian Universalist minister, he served as

president of the Unitarian Universality Association of Congregations

for 15 years, where he was involved in social justice causes and led

humanitarian missions in Romania, India, the Middle East, and Northern


How does a professional working daily with human cruelty keep their

spirits up, we ask.

"Part of my religious training, and conviction, and faith, is

that life is complex and rich," says Schulz. "And part of

the secret of life is to lead a balanced life that allows us to


that sometimes the joyous can emerge in the midst of our tears. I

try to live that balance in my own life: I both cultivate attention

to painful events in my work and cultivate some of the pleasures we

can take in life.

"Also, in my job I meet a great many people who are


inspiring. There may be many reasons for this, but they are often

people who have experienced horrors beyond my imagination —


it be imprisonment, torture, threats to their loved ones — and

yet they are often people who have emerged whole, people who have

lived rich and complex lives and who are still in the struggle.

"These are people who have not retreated, but who have had the

courage to step back into the whirling complexities of their lives.

So I feel the least I can do is to be of support to them and to use

what ever talents I may have for speaking or organizing or fundraising

to support lives that have been a model human dignity and human


he says.

"Digna Ochoa is a good example of that. I did not know her well,

but I had met with her and we had worked with her. In fact Amnesty

gave her our `Enduring Spirit’ award last year in Los Angeles. Here’s

a person who had already experienced a kidnapping; she knew she was

under threat; yet she didn’t flee.

"Despite all that had been thrown at her, she was unwilling to

escape or run away, she was committed to pursuing the good fight,

and she ended up paying with her life," says Schulz. "So I

try to keep my life in balance enough that I not become discouraged,

and that I not become unwilling to do my small part in that


— Nicole Plett

William Schulz, Princeton University, Frist Student

Center, Room 301, 609-921-8500. The author of "In Our Own Best

Interest" gives a talk co-sponsored by the Princeton U-Store and

Amnesty International Group 67 of Mercer County.

Free. Monday, November 12, 7 p.m.

Danny Glover, Princeton University, McCosh 50.


Execution: The Death Penalty in America," a talk sponsored by

Amnesty International Mercer County and New Jerseyans for a Death

Penalty Moratorium. Thursday, November 15, 8 p.m.

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